Sierra Leone hosted a trade and investment conference this week, promising significant opportunities in the private sector. Officials say the West African nation has come far since the end of its long civil war in 2002.
Sierra Leone Minister of Trade and Industry Richard Konteh said his country is rebranding itself, and added it no longer portrays the image of a country recovering from war.
?It?s an opportunity for us to move our rebranding efforts further. We know that there are many misconceptions about Sierra Leone. People still think of the war whenever you mention Sierra Leone. People still think it?s all about savagery. It?s all about amputees. And we are saying that?s not true. Let them come and see for themselves,? he said.
Hope in the private sector
Sierra Leone, he said, is now a nation offering investment opportunities in agriculture, tourism, mining, fishing and energy.
The conference in Freetown (11/16-17) was titled Sierra Leone: Africa?s New Investment Destination. The theme was Improving Competitiveness and Sustaining Growth. Konteh believes the private sector holds the key to future growth and development.
?We hope that when they come, we?ll also use them to help build the domestic private sector in Sierra Leone. That there will be partnerships forged for the economic development of the country,? he said.
The International Monetary Fund reports that Sierra Leone?s Gross Domestic Product, or GDP, grew five percent in 2010. And it says the country has shown ?robust economic activity? in 2011. That?s due to expansion of its agricultural and mining sectors. But inflation has been high this year as a result of higher fuel and food prices.
The World Bank?s Ease of Doing Business Index shows Sierra Leone?s ranking has improved nine positions. And in 2012 will be ranked 141 in the index.
Konteh admits the effects of the global recession have been felt.
?Yes, we are receiving a bit of the aftershock of the economic meltdown. But I think we?re managing fairly well as a country,? he said.
Konteh said the government has invested heavily in agriculture. The United Nations and others have said such investment is needed to help ensure food security as the world population rapidly grows.
?We have received investment for that sector, basically in terms of investments in oil palm and sugar cane and rice production. And as a government we are also investing a lot in trying to ensure that we make this country once again an export country for rice, a net exporter of rice rather than a net importer of rice,? Konteh said.
In order to become a rice exporter, Konteh said greater investment in irrigation is needed. That would allow for the production of several rice crops per year.
Sierra Leone is also staking its future on hydroelectric power. Since the end of the civil war, the country has not had the infrastructure for a strong and reliable electricity supply.
It?s completed the first phase of the Bumbuna project on the Seli River. The government says it has the potential to greatly boost Sierra Leone?s power generation. It?s signed an agreement with the California-based Joule Investments Group to increase output from 50 megawatts to 400 megawatts.
It?s also exploring electricity generation using the river basin?s waterfall. Other smaller hydro-electric projects are planned or being built as well.
Konteh said Sierra Leone is also investing heavily in bio-fuels and green energy. ?We are also getting into solar energy generation, initially for rural electrification and individual housing.?
The trade and tourism minister said Sierra Leone no longer wants to be known for civil war atrocities and blood diamonds. He said that?s the past.
?We want to pride ourselves in our peace-loving nature. We want to pride ourselves in our friendliness. We want to pride ourselves in our religious tolerance. We want to say this is the right destination to come and do business. This is the right destination to come as a tourist. This is the right destination,? he said.
Sierra Leone hopes to attract investors by passing what it calls one of the toughest anti-corruption laws in Africa, which includes criminal prosecution. Also, the nation?s president and ministers are required to declare their assets.